Sunday, October 3, 2021

Ground Control to Major Cool! Dubreq releases David Bowie themed Stylophone.

A number of well-known musicians have used Stylophones in their recordings: Kraftwerk, Little Boots, Orbital, Erasure, Raconteurs, They Might Be Giants, and others. But the biggest star to use the instrument has to be the late David Bowie. The Starman's 1969 breakthrough single "Space Oddity" was the first popular recording to feature the Stylophone. The handheld instrument also appears in a couple of tracks on his 2002 album Heathen, and David has played Stylophone on stage. David also appeared in advertisements for the instrument.

David Bowie Stylophone graphic

Dubreq, the company that makes Stylophones, now has a special, limited-edition model of their flagship pocket synthesizer to commemorate the career of David Bowie and his association with the Stylophone. This is their second artist tie-in I know of that affected the appearance of the instrument (as opposed to just the box and booklet like they did with Rolf Harris and Bill Ramsey.) The company released a fun, black-and-copper Stylophone with Raconteurs stickers and packaging back in 2008. It was only sold at Raconteurs concerts and through the band's website, and it has become quite a collector's item.

The Bowie Stylophone is a variant of their current "original analog sound" S1, sporting a white cabinet, with a chrome-look grille featuring a large, 3-dimensional, official BOWIE logo, licensed from the David Bowie Archive. The sounds, switches, and jacks are where you would expect, and do what you would expect: power on/off, tremolo on/off, 3-position octave shift, headphone jack, tuning knob, and volume wheel. The one exception is that this limited-edition model runs on batteries only. There is no mini USB jack to power the instrument from an AC wall outlet, as was added to the previous S1 release.

Bowie Stylophone


The box features the BOWIE logo and a vintage photo of David playing an original model Stylophone. It is the same photo that was featured in Stylophone ads at the time. The 24-page instruction booklet features a short article about the history of the Stylophone and highlights of David Bowie's music career from 1969 to 2016, with lots of color images of picture sleeves, posters, and David in the studio and on stage. A quote from longtime Bowie producer and collaborator David Visconti recounts how David was ecstatic to be among the first artists to receive a complimentary Stylophone. That is a detail I did not know. There are also play-along tabs for melodies from "Space Oddity," "Suffragette City," "Golden Years," "Modern Love," "I'm Afraid of Americans," "Slip Away," and "No Plan." They aren't the complete songs, but just enough to get you started.

Bowie Stylophone, box, and booklet

In all, the BOWIE limited edition Stylophone is a fun keepsake for fans of the artist or the instrument. It looks great, it sounds great, and it's fun to play while you're sitting in your tin can, far above the world. To protect your instrument, you can also get a matching zipper case with the BOWIE logo. It's sold separately.



IMPORTANT NOTE:  When I first put in the batteries and pressed the stylus to the keyboard, the sound was all crackly and sputtery. THIS IS COMPLETELY NORMAL. When Stylophones are manufactured, the metal keys and the stylus tip have a protective coating or residue on them.  Likewise, an older Stylophone can start to have similar problems from a build-up of skin oils, dust, and tarnish. In either case, you need to clean it off to make good electrical contact.  I have found that firmly rubbing the metal surfaces of the stylus tip and the keyboard with a thumb or finger will remove a lot of the unwanted coating.  You can also place a small amount of cleaning solution on a cotton swap (aka Q-tip or cotton bud) and give the surfaces a scrub with it. Be careful, though. Several years ago I used a blue glass cleaner (like Windex) to clean the keys of a circa 2007 Stylophone. I used far too much cleaner. It soaked into the sticker that goes around the keyboard and broke down the glue enough that the sticker was damaged and came unstuck. As a collector's item, the instrument was ruined. This time I used a little DeoxIT spray on a cotton swab and was careful to not get any of it on the sticker.

Gotta get back to learning the Bowie tunes. Commencing countdown... Engines on...






Saturday, February 6, 2021

A Stylus-operated Musical Instrument that Sings!

The Stylophone Museum's newest exhibit isn't an official Dubreq brand Stylophone, but it has some similarities that make it welcome here. The Gakken NSX-39 "Pocket Miku" is an intriguing little instrument that was released in 2014, but I became familiar with it only this week, thanks to a trip down a rabbit hole while searching for something else on the web. 

The instrument is just one iteration of a cartoon/computer hybrid known as Hatsune Miku that blends the persona of a 16-year-old, turquoise-tressed female anime character with the Yamaha  NSX-1 sound chip and Vocaloid singing voice synthesis technology. The chip's digital voice is modeled on the real voice of anime voice actress Saki Fujita. There are lots of demos of the instrument to listen to on YouTube.

Like an official Stylophone, the NSX-39 is played with a stylus on a metal keyboard. There is also a ribbon controller along the top edge of the keyboard. There's no physical barrier between the keys and the ribbon, so you can move the stylus from one to the other seamlessly. The stylus snaps into the base of the instrument for storage. Three AAA batteries power the NSX-39, or it will run on USB power. (More on that later.) On power-up, the instrument plays voice-synthesizer sounds that approximate solfege ("do-re-mi") vocalizations for the eight notes of the major scale. You can play a vowel sound across the keyboard instead, with the push of one of five buttons labeled A, I, U, E, and O. Another button adds vibrato to the voice.

A shift button can be used to access additional functions, such as playing preset lyrics to what I would assume are Japanese folksongs. (Unfortunately, I don't read Japanese beyond a few simple words, so I can't sing along.) Pressing shift and an arrow button will raise or lower the singing pitch by one octave. Another button adds vibrato to the voice. A combination of the vibrato button and an arrow button will bend the pitch up or down by a semitone.

Additional features include a built-in speaker, a headphone output jack that can also be used for line output, and a USB jack that can be used with a compatible power supply or to connect the NSX-39 to a computer.  With USB connected, you can access some web-based apps that will allow you to edit the instrument's vocabulary so that you can make the instrument sing lyrics to just about any Japanese-language song. 

The NSX-39 can also be used as a MIDI playback device. Input to MIDI channel 1 will play the voice synthesizer. Channels 2 through 16 are General MIDI compatible, with all the standard 128 instrument voices and drums. So, with MIDI sequencing software or a MIDI file player, you can have the NSX-39 sing lead vocals and perform the sounds of a backing band. It's kind of fun and it sounds better than I expected. Here is an example MP3 recording of an aria from "The Magic Flute" I made using a MIDI file I found online:


The NSX-39 is playing the vocal line with just the "O" vowel sound. There is also a way to use MIDI to make adjustments to the NSX-1 chip's digital signal processing effects, but I haven't dug into those capabilities yet.

The Gakken SNX-39 Pocket Miku comes with a 16-page owner's manual with an article about the history of voice synthesis. It's all in Japanese, but I found an English-language version on the web.


The NSX-39 "Pocket Miku" sells for around $70 new, or you can pick up a used one on eBay for as little as about $40. (If you follow the link and make a purchase on eBay, a small sales commission will go to the Stylophone Museum.)





Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Band uses Stylophones in Poultry Performance

 Who says Stylophones can't be used to make "serious" music? Well, okay. A lot of people. But seriously, you need to check out the clever use of a Stylophone GEN R-8, a vintage Stylophone 350S, and a Stylophone Beatbox in this highly amusing rendition of "Chicken Man" by the PNK Stylophonic Gift Shop. The group consists of three guys named Smokey, Fluff, and Lazlo, and hails from somewhere in the UK.